Feeling like a natural researcher

I am in my third year of my PhD and I’ve realised over the past few days for the first time I feel like a researcher.

It feels good.

There had been small glimpses previously – presenting at a conference, writing/submitting a paper – but it had not been something I have been able to hold on to. I’ve quickly been subsumed into the day-to-day focus of getting through my to-do list.

However, it’s like something just shifted in my brain – kinda like when learning to drive. You struggle and struggle having to consciously remember to put all the small tasks of driving together (gear in first, clutch in, turn the key, look in the mirrors, indicate, take hand brake off..). Thinking perhaps this driving thing is just not for me – that, hey, there’s nothing wrong with public transport and cajoling loved ones to drive me around for the rest of my life.

That’s not to say that I feel skilled as a researcher or that I don’t know I have much much more to learn. I think it’s that I feel more confident that it will all come together and that I am doing actual real and beneficial research. Who knew!?

There are a couple of key things that have happened this week.

Firstly, I attended a 2-day summit with other PhD candidates who are funded by the same organisations, the Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre. I went with the Imposter Syndrome-o-meter reading Very High, worried about hearing about how fabulous everyone else’s research had turned out when I’ve mostly just found it hard and perplexing. But, not surprisingly, the experiences of others were very similar to my own. Struggling with isolation, data collection and analysis, and motivation. Very few PhDs (if any) go to plan and that’s very comforting to know (though easy to forget). It was good to be around other PhD students who weren’t afraid to be vulnerable and admit that sometimes, some things are just crap.

It was through another PhD student at this summit who mentioned an article on the emotional labour that researchers do in collecting data during ethnographic or qualitative research. Being in the middle of conducting an action research study, this resonated with me so much. It validated and reassured my experience – helped me understand the emotional rollercoaster I’ve felt navigating the relationships with a range of different participants.

So much more work ahead of me, but I feel more in control and can see the path forward. That has to be a good thing.


Enjoying your PhD…?!

Going back into my desk at uni in January felt a little sad this year. The PhD student who has sat at the desk next to me for the last few years, is close to submitting and has moved interstate to take up some exciting work (and lifestyle) opportunities. I’ll miss her a lot; having a truly sympathetic, wise, funny, generous and supportive peer has been invaluable to help me navigate the many confusing and stressful times of the PhD experience. It’s also been wonderful to laugh at the absurdities, and celebrate the big and small achievements along the way.

In her farewell email, one of the pieces of advice she gave fellow PhD students was to be sure to enjoy it. My initial thoughts were: ‘impossible!’, ‘absurd!’; probably because I ended last year having worked myself into quite a state of anxiety about how the hell I will be able finish my data collection, analysis and write up in less than a year after which time my scholarship finishes (and if not how I will find ‘proper’ work and finish it etc etc), which, when I think about it, is exactly the kind of state of mind I in at the end of the previous year!

CC, Werwin15 @ flickr

CC, Werwin15 @ flickr

Even prior to the end of the year, enjoyment is not a word I would use to describe my PhD experience – in fact it’s probably one of the last words I would use. Indeed words that immediately spring to mind if I were to describe my phd are: stressful, confusing, perplexing, challenging, isolating, hard, and, perhaps occasionally a little demoralising. This is a bit sad, if not entirely surprising given my anxiety disorder; I tend to fixate on the negative and less enjoyable things.

However, it reality my PhD has been quite wonderful in many regards; I ended the year winning the Best Student Paper at a major conference (surprising and thrilling!) and after a ridiculously long time I submitted a systematic review to a journal. I also successfully ran a series of participatory design workshops. It’s challenged me and shown me the value of persistence. I really have loved learning and love the fact that my research has the potential to make a real difference to young people’s experience and their relationship with their General Practitioner. I have supervisors who are generally pretty awesome too which I am very thankful for, not to mention the the support of my PhD peers. Unfortunately I just don’t tend to give these positives much thought (too busy focusing on the negative stuff) .

Interestingly, over the summer I did a major clean out of my flat and found a list of my signature strengths. Signature strength is a concept from positive psychology, individual skills or talents that facilitate a sense of happiness and flourishing. Mine are: humour and playfulness; gratitude; love of learning; social intelligence; and honesty, authenticity, and genuineness.

I’m not naive enough to think that I can banish my anxiety and negative ruminations. However, I will commit to trying to have a more balanced outlook, and perhaps ensure I incorporate my signature strengths into my research where possible.

So here’s to a year of moments of JOY!

Going back to gaming

In August this year the Department of Health published a report on the mental health and wellbeing of children and adolescents (parents of 4-17 year olds and young people aged 11-17). Putting aside the significant limitation that the 18-25 age group was not included, it provides a good snapshot of young people’s health. Depressingly not a lot has changed in terms of the rates of mental health problems and disorders which have remained about the same.

Within the highlights section a summary reports on ‘behaviours that could put them at risk’. Interestingly, internet use and electronic gaming was reported alongside bullying, problem eating, and substance use, implying that this activity is inherently problematic. In fact, only 4% of 11 to 17 year olds have highly problematic internet use or electronic gaming (compared with 34% who had been bullied and 18% who had drunk alcohol).

I’ve enjoyed gaming in the past, without transforming into regular or ongoing use (perhaps because it lost the battle with the well-established love of reading books for preferred leisure time activity). That said, my family was certainly an early adopter of technology and gaming. Indeed my brother ended up becoming games programmer.  My dad was an engineer and inherently interested in computers and we soon had an Apple II. We were soon playing those wonderful early games like Castle Wolfenstein and Dino Eggs – and even before this we played the simple but oddly enjoyable pong (yes, I am officially old!).

Apple II: CC Maciej Janiec @ flickr http://tinyurl.com/nrdro7w

Apple II: CC Maciej Janiec @ flickr http://tinyurl.com/nrdro7w

On the weekend I unpacked my Wii and discovered that the last time I’d played was in 2010! I’ve spent a few hours over the last couple of days playing Super Mario Galaxy. I was curious to know if I would enjoy it as much as I did previously, or whether there was something inherently ‘youth’ about it that would mean it wouldn’t engage me like it once did. This wasn’t the case and I found myself totally absorbed and enjoying it. What did surprise me was that I experienced a flow state that was analogous to that I experience while horse-riding. The sense of being totally absorbed in the task, learning skills and a sense of mastery was wonderful.

There have been many alarmist reports about the negative effects of gaming (addiction, violence). In fact, there is also good evidence to suggest that there are many creative, social and emotional benefits from playing video games. And it’s great to see that there is a more complex and mature discussion about video games emerging, for example Play Write.  The next challenge is to enable health practitioners (including GPs) to be able to discuss video game use with young people in order to identify and understand use that does and does not facilitate health and wellbeing.



What horseriding has taught me about doing a PhD

At about the same time I started my PhD I also started taking horse-riding lessons. Every weekend I travel out to the the gorgeous Yarra Ranges outside Melbourne for a couple of hours of peace and beauty. It’s been immensely rewarding and satisfying, and a real privilege to get to know these majestic animals and be taught by some excellent supportive teachers. Apart from the many health benefits it’s made me reflect that, in many ways, a PhD is a lot like riding a horse (bear with me):

It can be scary: Horses are big, powerful and can be unpredictable. This can be scary, particularly for new and inexperienced riders. While I understood undertaking the PhD would be a big commitment, it was only after a few months in that I realised the complexity and challenge of it (and got a little freaked out!). I also don’t think I appreciated what an emotional rollercoaster it would be.

Autumn riding by reindi @ flickr

Autumn riding by reindi @ flickr

You need to turn up and be present: With horse-riding you absolutely need to be in the moment; focused on the task at hand, otherwise there’s a good chance you will be putting the safety of yourself, the horse and others at risk. This is not just for during the actual lesson itself but from the time you groom and saddle your horse, through to unsaddling,  and turning out into the paddock. In the PhD there are just so many distractions and opportunities to procrastinate that sometimes you don’t know where to start and how to focus (harder than it sounds!). Using things like the pomodoro technique is a good start. Breaking things down into manageable chunks can make all the difference!

It’s about partnership: Before I started having lessons, oddly, I thought horse-riding was mostly about me learning a new skill. This is true in part, however it’s actually so much more. At the risk of going all horse-whisperer on you, it’s about the connection between horse and rider, and understanding how to form a partnership with the horse so you are working together towards set goals, rather than simply cajoling/pushing/pulling the way. The PhD can be a very solitary journey but there are partnership opportunities throughout – with supervisors, other PhD students, with reference groups who might form different types of partnerships, etc. These people can walk some of the journey with you.

Persistence (or sticking at it when things get tough): Learning to horse-ride can be a bit like learning to play a new (albeit living and breathing) instrument. One week everything just comes together and you feel so elated, but other weeks things just don’t click, both you and the horse get flustered, and you can’t seem to do anything right. But you persist and end up still getting so much out of the lesson despite (because of!) the frustration. Persistence in the face of boredom, confusion, frustration, the unknown (etc!) has got to be one of the top three traits required for a PhD – at least for me.

Learning by doing: If nothing else, horse-riding can be learning through doing; practising something again and again until it comes together. There is something very freeing in being able to do that. With the PhD I often put a lot of pressure on myself to get something right the first time, when in fact the PhD is an apprenticeship and as much about learning to do research as much as doing it (though I don’t think this is emphasised enough).

Celebrating the little wins: It’s such a wonderful feeling in horse-riding when something you have been working on for weeks comes together, even relatively small things. Last week I managed to transition from walk to sitting trot (a bit harder than the usual walk to rising trot as it requires more control of your body and the horse). With the PhD seeing the little wins (finishing coding a section of data, for instance) within the bigger picture need to be regularly recognised and celebrated!

Remember to breathe: It’s amazing how often I have to remind myself to breathe during my lesson. I’ve got so caught up in adjusting my technique or learning to do something that I’ve been holding my breathe. Apart from the fact that breathing is, well, kinda necessary, the horse quickly picks up on the tensions that it causes in the body, getting in the way of learning. With the PhD, finding the space to breathe and unwind is so important.

I used to cringe a little when reading posts that used metaphor to describe the PhD experience (or anything!). I’m not sure why, perhaps I thought it trivialised it. Now, I’m glad that I see this can be a valuable way of deepening the understanding of the experience.

Should GPs be screening for problem gambling in young poeple?

A few weeks ago I felt quite happy (smug even!) at reaching a mini-milestone for the development of my health risk screening app: I delivered the final set of questions for the app (to be filled out by young people prior to their doctor’s appointment) to the software developers.

The questions are based on the Home, Education/employment, Eating, peer Activities, Drugs, Sexuality, Suicide/depression and Safety (HEEADSSS) approach to assess for psychosocial health in young people (more info here). As part of the process of transforming the quite lengthy interview guidelines into a brief questionnaire, I adapted a recently developed e-heeadsss tool for headspace centres and consulted with young people and general practitioners (GPs). And I felt pretty good about the final list being a representative and appropriately youth (and GP)-friendly!

Gambling was not an issue that had been included or suggested nor did it occur to me either. However, listening to a recent Background Briefing podcast investigating problem sports betting among young males has made me look further into the issue. The podcast makes for sobering listening, detailing the insidious tactics betting companies undertake to ‘groom’ their customers.

As an Australian Rules football fan, who’s seen betting advertising increasingly saturate the experience of watching it via television, radio and even at the ground (there is no escape!) this wasn’t a massive surprise. That said, the amount of money lost by the young men was breath-taking, losses that they may never be able to repay.

What the investigation did not really explore in much depth was the incidence and whether there are any health effects to problem gambling.

In terms of the incidence, the Problem Gambling Research and Treatment Centre report that young people are at higher risk of problem gambling compared with adults. A median of 73% of young people have gambled during the past year, with 4-8% falling into pathological gambling (which is 2-4 times the rate of the adult population). An additional 10-15% are at risk of problem gambling.

Apart from the obvious financial stress and problems, the report outlines how problem gambling is also associated with a range of psychosocial problems. Youth problem gambling is associated with anxiety, depression and suicide ideation. It is also associated with substance use, physical violence, and poor academic achievement. The additional problem with gambling is that it is often hidden and people don’t seek treatment.

So it would suggest that GPs are actually ideally positioned to screen for this and make referrals to appropriate support.  And including it in my app would be a very good idea.

Coming back from the (non writing) wilderness

I’ve been feeling oddly uninspired to write a blog post for some time – even though I’ve been reading other blog posts about the benefits of using it to become unstuck in your work (but what happens when the thing that is stuck is writing the blog itself??). Perhaps it’s because a huge chunk of time has been spent working on a major and complicated ethics application for my final and main study of my phd (I even devoted most of a writing retreat to preparing it, which left me feeling rather cheated and sorry for myself!). This was productive and necessary, but didn’t inspire me – even though there were interesting methodological challenges that sent me chasing my tail for some time (this from someone who generally rather quite likes writing ethics applications – really!). Even signing up to the insightful How to Survive your PhD MOOC hasn’t inspired me (even though it has been excellent).

Featured image

It’s not as if I haven’t done any other writing or reading that could fuel some meaty blog posts. In fact I got an article accepted in a peer-reviewed conference proceedings – which will be included in my thesis with publication (hooray!). The article discussed my findings from my participatory design workshops early this year.

So, what prompted me to write this blog as soon as I got in to uni and sat down at my desk today? Perhaps it has something to do with listening to the recent On Being podcast looking at how we construct and need meaning in our working life. It’s spurred me to reflect on what meaning I get from my phd and how to ensure I build these things in if I’m not currently getting them. I need to digest this a bit more but I think I’ve fallen into the trap of assuming that because my PhD topic overall is meaningful (i.e. will contribute to a better experience for doctor and young person, hopefully improve health outcomes etc) that that in itself will be enough to provide the meaning I need throughout the phd journey. But that is so vague and long term that it becomes meaningless in the day to day experience of the phd. I don’t have any answers per se, but I am going to try and be more mindful about my work and building meaning into my days.

In other news, I’ve recently downloaded the trial version of Scrivener. It comes highly recommended and I have liked what I am seeing so far. Things don’t look anywhere near as daunting in this format (and there is a bit of fun in working out a new system) – even though I do have reservations at the lack of easy syncing with my Mendeley referencing system.

There. It’s not even 9am and I have written a brand new blog post. Today is going to be a good day!

What’s the point of parents?

Up until quite recently I have basically avoided having to include parents in my research, or, at the very least, I’ve dismissed their relevance. I put this down to a combination of factors:

  • At it’s core, my research involves developing a health screening app for young people and GPs  i.e. young people fill it out and GPs review a summary, so parents didn’t seem to be a stakeholder at all.
  • Having worked primarily with young people for almost all my working life, my default lens is very ‘youth-centric’, recognising and respecting their independence and expertise in their own health.
  • I’m not a parent and perhaps less aware of the critical role and perspective parents have in the health and wellbeing (I freely admit, this is naieve and rather stupid!)
  • I was scared that adding another stakeholder group (along with young people, GPs, and practice staff) would create a lot more work (e.g. from literature search to data collection, analysis and write-up (more work!?!).
  • Concern about getting conflicting needs and requirements to that of young people and GPs.

Thankfully my supervisors gently, but firmly, suggested that I include this group. Parents are, in fact, a significant stakeholder, in particular for the under 18, where parents still book their appointments, take them to the appointment and often still go into the consultation with them and, for some, are literally their voice with receptionists and GPs. Thus even though parents will not be using the app themselves, they act as gatekeepers and making the app acceptable to them is critical (ie otherwise they won’t allow their child to use it).

Thankfully, I had included parents in my original ethics submission (‘just in case’) and I was able to organise and run a brief workshop with a group of 8 parents of young people aged 14 to 25 last Thursday.

Some key insights from the evening:

  • Perhaps not surprisingly, the extent to which parents were comfortable with their child talking about psychosocial issues alone with their GP varied between parents and depending on the topic. Influences on this seemed to be their own childhood experience, existing medical conditions (e.g. Aspergers’) and the perceived maturity of their child.
  •  Most parents were not comfortable with their GP talking with their child about drugs, mental health and self-harm – even though they recognised these were issues facing young people.
  • Central to how comfortable parents were with their child speaking to the GP alone about psychosocial issues was the extent to which they trusted their GP. This certainly reflects other research.
  • Understandably, there seemed to be a tension between wanting to be entirely informed about the results and with the need to respect confidentiality. While most understood the survey responses would be confidential, they liked the idea of getting an indication from the GP if there were any areas of concern (e.g. on a scale of 1-5), even though this might simply result in anxiety of not knowing exactly what the issue was. Reassurance that any issues were being appropriately followed up on seemed important.
  • Identified the app as a way to bring parents and child together. While this isn’t the central purpose of my research (if anything it’s about bringing GPs and young people together), it is interesting that this came up (and perhaps also reflects technology’s broader potential of bringing all sorts of people together).

Overall, there was a sense that if parents were reassured about the content, purpose, follow up and privacy/security of the app they would allow there child to use it, even though there was some discomfort about the topics.